American values about education are never more clear than when we think about what we want for our own children.
I know that I’ve evaluated every classroom I ever observed on whether I would want my own child in that classroom. If I deemed the teacher excellent, I would be happy to have one of my kids in her class; if I found him or her less worthy, I’d be moving heaven and earth to get them into another classroom.
Most Americans are no different from me. We judge the quality of schools on whether the schools serve our own children well, and we use that same measuring stick when we make big picture decisions about what schools writ large should deliver.
One of the most recurring themes in the PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools each year is the disconnect between what Americans want and what policy makers are doing. This year did not change that pattern. This year, we learned and reported that Americans support investments in career preparation even if that means their child might spend less time in academic classes.
But, it turns out, there’s nothing really new about this. During the nearly 50 years of the poll, Americans have consistently said they want high schools to provide more focus on preparing kids for the world of work. As long ago as 1971, 68% of Americans said schools were spending too much time emphasizing college preparation and too little time preparing students for occupations that did not require a college degree. Five years later, 80% of Americans said they wanted more emphasis on careers and career preparation during high school; during that year, only 5% wanted less emphasis on the same. In a series of questions in 2014, we learned that Americans overwhelmingly wanted high school students to receive more education about possible career choices (87%) and wanted high schools to place more emphasis on preparing students for fields with more employment opportunities (77%).
But this interest in preparing kids for a future work life coexists with a deep belief in the value of college: In 1987, for example, 87% of Americans wanted their own children to attend college. In 1995, only 1% of respondents said they did NOT want their oldest child to attend college. By 2015, only 9% of adults said that college is “not too important.”
Disconnect with policy makers
If the message from Americans is so clear, why have schools been so slow to embrace an approach that values preparation for both work and college?
My own belief is that elites have overlooked this shift because it doesn’t align with what they want for their own children. The folks who tend to run things in this country (and that includes the education system) are virtually all college-educated. They have lots of little letters after their last names, moving from the humble BA and BS to the loftier PhD, MBA, JD, MD, DVM, DDS, CPA, and more.
They are, by definition, individuals who have seen enough value in a college education to pursue it for themselves — and often more than once — and presumably want the same for their children. The power brokers are still focused on sending their own children to college, and they’ve designed and supported a system that benefits their children the most. But that system is increasingly leaving behind children who simply don’t want to fall in line with that grand plan. Pity the poor child who evinces even a scintilla of reluctance not to attend college. College enrollment is a done deal long before Johnny has started preschool.
What happens to the child who wants to become an electrician and not an electrical engineer? Or a massage therapist and not a physical therapist? Or prefers coding to designing system software?
We must guard against developing a system that tracks kids into certain academic paths because of their race, gender, or socioeconomic circumstances. Not only do we need to ensure that a black girl from a low-income family has access to a higher education, we must also ensure that a white boy from an affluent family has the option to get his hands dirty in an auto mechanics class. Class bias can work both ways and should never limit a child’s access to his or her dreams. -— JR
Originally published in November 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 4. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.